Two-thirds of Americans think minorities should have no say in the political process.
At least, that’s what Pew Research’s survey on Electoral College opinions essentially shows.
If that sounds harsh, perhaps the Twittersphere should spend a little more time unpacking what it means when two-thirds of Americans—including almost half of Republicans—say they favor a national popular vote over the Electoral College.
Fortunately, as polling expert and Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato sarcastically noted on Twitter, the Constitution’s efficiency at slowing public opinion’s impact on the country means the proverbial wolves won’t be voting on whether to have lamp chops anytime soon.
However, the unlikelihood of substantive change to the way we select presidents doesn’t mean the poll is irrelevant. It lends itself to an important philosophical and practical conversation: why do most American want to end a core pillar of the system that integrates minority views into the nation’s governing apparatus, creates checks and balances between the states and the federal government, and forces elected officials to work together (at least, once in a while)?
Conservative pundits grabbed the low-hanging fruit on this debate: Americans don’t have enough knowledge of civics to know why the Electoral College exists or why—to borrow from Benjamin Franklin—the popular vote prevents the “sheep” population from becoming breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the “wolves.”
For example, podcast host Joey Mannarino told his 323,000 Twitter followers that “we would lose our Republic entirely” with the popular vote. Conservative blog Twitchy opened with “WTF” and criticized the 47 percent of Republicans who backed the popular vote. And the AwakenedOutlaw handle, with 198,000 followers, tweeted, “stupid people have no idea about why we have an electoral college [sic].”
Americans are ignorant about civics—I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about Congress’ role in confirming elections until 2020—but it’s probably less about being “stupid” than simply being misled about our complex electoral system.
Here are a few other ways to think about the challenge of showing why a republic system that puts elites (read: electors) in power over the average person (read: democracy).
1. People listen to those we trust and to what we hear most, and one of the most common drumbeats in our politics is that America is a democracy. For example, just a few weeks ago, 13 presidential centers issued a statement on September 7 declaring that “democracy holds us together.” Just as many intelligent people believe that the rich don’t pay their fair share (they do), it’s easy to misunderstand our political structure when those who should know better… don’t.
In short: The issue isn’t necessarily the average person. It’s the liberal influencers who convince people that the Electoral College is bad and skip over the wolves and sheep part of democracy; and the conservative influencers who patriotically claim we are a “democracy” while skipping over… well, that we don’t have one.
2. It’s hard to change one’s mind once it’s decided. Think about the last time your spouse or child proved you wrong about something—did you immediately emotionally invest in the new knowledge, or did you try to justify yourself? Even once the benefits of the Electoral College are explained—including, but not limited to, keeping minority rights intact and preventing too much change too fast—it’s hard to wrap that around the embedded idea that we are a “democracy.”
3. In a social media-driven political culture, complexities get lost behind quick and pithy soundbites. It’s easy to say “democracy is great,” as long as you don’t explain the wolves and sheep analogy.
It’s much harder to reduce arguments for a complex federalist system into a simple soundbite. You can start with the checks and balances in Congress… or the checks and balance between the three federal branches… or the checks and balances between the states and feds… or the balances between the voters and their elected officials.
President Reagan was right that we are only ever one generation away from losing freedom. The American republic isn’t perfect, and we are facing enormous social, cultural, legal, moral, and political challenges. But Americans have supported quick, easy, and wrong answers before, and we’ll surely do so again. That’s the nature of a system that gives power to the people (and legislators, and courts, and states, and the feds).
Paul Revere is the pseudonym of a conservative writer.